Engagement in Teaching


Working in a face-to-face setting such as the classroom is the most usual way for service users and carers to be involved in teaching, often to present personal testimonies or stories. There are many other ways that their input can make a real difference to students’ learning and the other leaflets will give ideas about these. Here the focus will be on suggestions for direct engagement in teaching processes which can broaden the range of activities beyond the ‘life story slot’. The interaction between students and service users and carers is a vital part of learning for students, who as professional workers need to be able to step into the shoes of service users and carers. The involvement of service users and carers can also challenge – or confirm – the user perspective of tutors, and can provide both learning and affirmation for service users and carers themselves. However it is essential, as with all forms of engagement that meticulous preparation and planning and debriefing are undertaken (see also Preparation for Engagement and Engagement in Evaluation)

Mutual Respect

Face-to-face interaction between students, service users and carers can enable the development of mutual respect for each other and help students learn to treat Service users as people and not as cases. It gets the message across very clearly.

"I realised that my epertise in my condition was of interest to others and could make all the difference to how students related to services users and carers"
"If you can't talk to me like you are an equal it's not good practice"
"It's not academic to us."

There are many examples of face-to-face engagement by service users and carers including:

  • Planning and delivering practice learning workshops
  • Running seminars
  • Giving lectures or presentations
  • Group discussion
  • Judging posters
  • Panel member
  • Delivering training
  • Art and drama
  • Students visit to service user or carer group meeting
  • Staff development; practice assessor briefing
  • Inter professional education/learning

 Amongst the benefits for student learning are that:

  • People who use services and students can learn together
  • Students may learn better by engaging with real life stories which can then be related to theory
  • Values can be put into practice and reinforced
  • Future relationships can be modelled
  • Assumptions and stereotypes can be challenged and anti-discrimination discouraged

However, these sessions do need to be properly managed. Students may be really upset and moved, service users and carers may also find it painful to share sensitive information about themselves to strangers. Confidentiality needs to be endorsed. Students and staff need to be fully prepared. Service users and carers may need rehearsal, training and support to deliver their message. Flexibility is needed to accommodate the preferences of service users and the learning needs of students, bearing in mind the requirements of professional programme curricula. Venues need to be accessible. Debriefing is vital when people have shared sensitive information about their lives. (See also preparation for engagement.)

One of the issues about the engagement of individuals telling their personal story is that the experience of a single person can be dismissed as unrepresentative, and individuals can feel like ‘specimens’. One service user or carer does not represent all and care needs to be taken to make sure that a diverse range of carers and users with different disabilities and experiences are included.

Some institutions have overcome this problem by embedding Service user and carer input throughout the course or by teaching staff working together with service user and carers (either individually or representing groups) to develop a whole module or course on working with service users. Some groups of service users may wish to design their own modules.

There are also good examples of people with disabilities providing and delivering training, such as people with learning disability delivering training on advocacy; people from mental health groups delivering training on equality and diversity. This provides a particularly effective learning opportunity for students, people can be seen as trainers first rather than someone with a condition. Equality and diversity trainers may focus on the social model of disability rather than telling personal stories.

Case Studies

There are many good examples of engagement of service users and carers in both direct and indirect teaching in  literature.

OU Practice Workshops. Two service users were involved in a third year OU Social Work Practice course workshop on organisational change and decision making. The process involved a planning meeting with the tutor and the two Service users, the provision of preparatory materials and telephone support before the meeting, for the staff tutor to attend the meeting with them and then to debrief the service users and tutor afterwards. The tutor felt that the students had really learned from the engagement, which provided depth; she thought it had been ‘worth its weight in gold’.

In the Glasgow School of Social Work service users participate in a module called organizational contexts. As part of the module students have to develop their own service. Service users and carers take part in a Q and A session to enable students to think through good and bad elements of service delivery ( SCLD 2009)

First year nursing students at Glasgow Caledonian University complete a two week module on working with people with learning disabilities. Trainers with learning disabilities give lectures and attend tutorials. This is supported with on-line materials including a video in which people with learning disabilities talk about what they expect from the health service.               

Other case studies include:

  • service users devising problem or enquiry based learning materials then acting as consultants or resource people to the groups as they work through the task
  • Working alongside students as they learn listening, communication, counselling and interviewing skills. This could involve setting exercises, playing roles and offering feedback
  • A creative writing course run by a service user for occupational therapy staff
  • A short humorous play performed by a group of patients who had survived stays in a psychiatric unit was made into a DVD for an OU course on mental health.

On Reflection

There is more experience of service user and carer engagement in teaching, be it direct or indirect, than in any other aspect, however very few have service user and carer lead inputs embedded throughout a course or programme. (Link to other toolkit leaflets)

The last word goes to service users and carers who have been involved in workshops (Ref Glasgow SUCG). Their advice includes

  • Make sure you get plenty of briefing and preparation from staff and support or training if you think you may need it; it may be helpful to get support in how you are going to deliver your message e.g. using notes, prompt cards, photographs, ‘interview’ style.
  • Say ‘no’ if you can’t or don’t want to be involved or don’t like the format of the session
  • Make it clear if the values you are putting across are those of the group you represent, or more personal ones
  • Get feedback from staff and students
  • If things don’t turn out as you expected, learn from the event.


Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability (SCLD).(2009) Effective Engagement in social Work education – a good practice guide on involving people who use services and carers.  [Accessed 25/03/10] Available at: http://www.serviceusercarergoodpractice.org.uk